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Study shows 2,000 people wrongfully convicted since 1989

Our readers in Winston-Salem may be interested to hear of a recent study showing that, since the start of 1989, at least 2,000 people have been falsely convicted of serious crimes and later exonerated. The statistics gathered by two universities are staggering.

The study provides detailed information on 873 exonerations and less detailed information on about 1,200 others. Altogether, those 873 wrongfully convicted people spent over 10,000 years in prison. The average for each person was more than 11 years.

About one-third of the 873 defendants were wrongfully convicted on sexual assault charges, and about half of the 873 were exonerated of homicide. DNA evidence was used in about one-third of the homicide exonerations and in roughly two-thirds of the sexual assault exonerations. Cases of drug, white-collar and other nonviolent crimes made up 7 percent of the wrongful convictions.

Researchers from the University of Michigan Law School and the Center on Wrongful Convictions combined their efforts to put together the data and create a national registry of exonerations. Previously, there was no such official record, and this recently published list is the most extensive to date.

Mistaken eyewitness identification, misleading forensic evidence and perjured testimony were the most common factors leading to exoneration.

The editor of the publication, called the National Registry of Exonerations, indicated that many more wrongful convictions just haven't been put on the list yet. The exonerations are on record throughout the country, but they generally don't get the media fanfare surrounding convictions and require searching out.

"It used to be that almost all the exonerations we knew about were murder and rape cases," said the editor. "We're finally beginning to see beyond that. This is a sea change."

This new study should remind North Carolina residents that criminal charges do not and should not automatically lead to a conviction. Police, prosecutors and witnesses do make mistakes, and there may be mitigating circumstances that should be uncovered in favor of the defendant. After all, no one deserves to be put in a cage based on misleading testimony or bad evidence.

Source: myfox8, "Study: 2,000 convicted then exonerated in 23 years," Joe Borlik, May 21, 2012

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